KIEV (Reuters) - The bodyguards were nervous, fingers poised over the triggers of their automatic weapons, as Ukraine’s president inspected the site of a rocket attack from separatist territory which had killed 10 people that day, one of many visits to the front line.
“His security detail fill their boots with sweat whenever he goes,” said Iryna Gerashchenko, deputy speaker of the Ukrainian parliament and an ally of President Petro Poroshenko.
Visits to attack sites like the one in 2015 have helped secure Poroshenko’s reputation as a robust defender of Ukrainian statehood against Russia, which annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 as well as supporting the separatists in the east.
But Poroshenko, a multi-millionaire businessman, has not shaken off allegations he puts business before matters of state. Corruption allegations have tainted his entourage, reforms have been fitful and price rises have eaten into living standards.
Ukrainians voting in a presidential election on Sunday must decide whether Poroshenko’s resolute defence of their nation overrides these other considerations.
“His greatest weakness is that he values money over everything else,” said Mustafa Nayyem, a former member of Poroshenko’s faction in parliament.
The presidency responded by saying Poroshenko had demonstrated his priorities by his actions, shoring up the army, ratifying an association agreement with the European Union and breaking Russia’s hold over gas supplies and Ukraine’s church.
“This is the most pro-European president in Ukrainian history,” it said. “And no one in power has achieved such results. It is clear that this causes an increase in malice from his opponents and leads them to make unfounded statements.”
Poroshenko’s main challenger is Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a comedian whose ridiculing of Ukraine’s pervasive corruption appeals to voters fed up with politics-as-usual.
Zelenskiy leads Poroshenko in most opinion polls, which suggest the president will face him in a second round run-off in April.
Poroshenko’s man-of-action credentials propelled him to power back in 2014. A confectionary magnate sometimes referred to as “the Chocolate King”, he had held ministerial posts in successive governments.
When protests broke out against pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich, he stood on top of a bulldozer with a bullhorn to try to prevent violence between police and protesters.
Elected president in May 2014, he faced a country in chaos. Separatists, backed by Russia, controlled a swathe of territory in the east and Ukraine’s security forces were dysfunctional. Arms stores had been looted and some units could not reach the fighting because they had no spare parts for their vehicles.
Under Poroshenko the army, backed by volunteer militias, pushed the separatists out of several towns and contained them. The military was re-equipped and morale lifted. Poroshenko is frequently seen dressed in camouflage fatigues visiting front-line units.
With some deft diplomacy, Poroshenko persuaded Washington to maintain its backing for Kiev and not ease up on sanctions on Russia, even after President Donald Trump came to power promising a detente with Moscow.
Kiev’s association agreement with the European Union in 2017 allowed visa-free travel for Ukrainians and locked their country into the Western orbit, and billions of dollars in loans from the International Monetary Fund stabilised the volatile economy.
In exchange for the loans his government had to implement reforms, one of which, a hike in retail gas prices, has caused widespread anger.
Ukraine’s gas still partially comes from Russia, but since Ukraine receives it via the EU, it is now harder for Moscow to turn off the taps in any financial dispute as it previously did.
And this year’s granting of autonomy for the Ukrainian branch of the Orthodox Church from Russia by the spiritual head of Orthodox Christians worldwide was a political coup for Poroshenko.
Campaigning for president back in 2014, Poroshenko was explicit about what he would do with his confectionary business if elected: “I will sell.”
Five years later, he has not sold, leaving him vulnerable to accusations that his administration — like others before it — is blurring the line between Ukraine’s interests and the financial interests of powerful oligarchs.
One of his close associates stepped aside from a senior government role late last month pending a corruption investigation involving his son. Both father and son deny the allegations, of involvement in smuggling military equipment from Russia and selling it to local armed forces at inflated prices.
A law criminalizing illicit enrichment was thrown out in February, sparking sharp criticism, especially from the United States. Poroshenko has denied he or his friends were enriching themselves, and urged patience on anti-corruption measures.
“If you sow potatoes and dig them up straight away, you’ll get nothing,” he said two years into his presidency. “We’ve taken the first steps, we’ve sown.”
Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Philippa Fletcher